Giant-Killer Lamont Stumbles

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, left, debates Democratic nominee Ned Lamont in Stamford, Conn. Lamont beat Lieberman,  a three-term Democratic incumbent, in an August primary, and Lieberman is now running as an independent.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, left, debates Democratic nominee Ned Lamont in Stamford, Conn. Lamont beat Lieberman, a three-term Democratic incumbent, in an August primary, and Lieberman is now running as an independent. (Photos By Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

STAMFORD, Conn., Oct. 16 -- Democratic Senate nominee Ned Lamont and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) met here Monday for their first general election debate, and the insurgent candidate did not get one direct question about the issue that dominated the August primary, the war in Iraq.

It was symptomatic of the predicament Lamont has found himself in since his stunning victory two months ago.

Then, he was hailed on the left as a political giant-killer who had demonstrated the power of national dissatisfaction with President Bush and the war. Today, his campaign is emblematic of the pitfalls of trying to marry a political insurgency with the party establishment. Tugged and pulled in different directions by old and new advisers, the wealthy businessman has been struggling to refocus his candidacy.

Monday's debate, which also included the Republican nominee, Alan Schlesinger, continued the war of words Lamont and Lieberman have conducted on television and by news release since the primary.

Lamont attacked Lieberman as a prisoner of the status quo on Iraq, health care and other issues. He chided Lieberman for going back on a pledge made in 1988, when he first ran for the Senate, not to serve more than three terms. "Well, Senator, it's been three terms, it's been 18 years," Lamont said. "Now you're part of that problem. Time's up."

Lieberman said Lamont would only deepen partisan divisions in Washington. "His finger-pointing, partisan blame-giving, petty political accusations is the last thing Washington needs more of," Lieberman said.

Lamont advisers see the three debates over the next week as critically important in changing the dynamics of a campaign that now favors Lieberman, and some believe that the candidate must find a way again to make Iraq and Bush the central focus. But Monday's one-hour debate, in which the candidates talked about health care, North Korea, Social Security, immigration and television ads, touched only lightly on the war.

They did offer, during a series of exchanges on unrelated questions, their positions on Iraq, with Lamont favoring a deadline to pull out U.S. forces and Lieberman warning that a hasty withdrawal would leave Iraq and the region in greater chaos.

Lamont's primary victory drew national attention, but momentum in the Senate race began to change that night. Lieberman used his concession speech to launch his independent campaign, with a fierce blast at the partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington and a vow to use the general election to reverse the outcome of that day's balloting.

Lamont appeared at his victory celebration flanked by Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton. The two had helped by campaigning with him in black churches, but their presence on the stage reinforced Lamont's liberal credentials at a moment when many Democrats were urging him to broaden his appeal to the moderate and independent voters he would need in the general election.

There followed a series of missteps. Lamont, who had run a skillful, grass-roots primary campaign, left for vacation and his campaign immediately began to flounder.

"We kind of went to sleep," said Tom D'Amore, a senior Lamont adviser. "We were led to understand, as naive as it sounds, that there were forces at work" trying to persuade Lieberman to give up his independent candidacy for the good of the Democratic Party. "They said, 'Don't come out and go too hard on Joe. Give us an opportunity.' " That never happened. Lieberman ignored pleas to quit the race and quickly swapped out his primary team of advisers for new consultants, including GOP pollster Neil Newhouse and Democratic ad maker Josh Isay.

Lamont's troubles have continued through the fall. Last week, he appeared at an event where the former state treasurer, Henry Parker, who is African American, challenged Lieberman to prove he had been involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi as a college student.

Lieberman quickly produced newspaper stories documenting his time in the state and denounced both his accuser and the Lamont campaign, which had helped organize the event. Lamont apologized then and again in Monday's debate, but the incident has caused further setbacks for the Democratic candidate.

Lamont trails Lieberman in polls. To win, he will need help from Schlesinger, who has been abandoned by the GOP establishment but who may have done himself more good than anyone else in Monday's debate. Schlesinger has polled in low single digits, and the larger his vote, the more it will hurt Lieberman.

Lieberman was not asked in the debate about Lamont's charge that he has broken a pledge to serve only three terms. In the telephone interview later, he explained his desire for a fourth term: "A lot has happened since [1988]. Nine-eleven happened. I think our country's threatened. I think I have experience."

Lieberman has been endorsed by some Republicans and will need GOP votes to win, but he has promised to caucus with the Democrats. On Monday he said he wants Democrats to take control of the Senate and House, though he had declined to answer a similar question over the weekend. "I'm a Democrat, and I hope they do it," he said by phone.

Still he sounded liberated by his independent candidacy. Running as an independent, he said, was not his first choice. "But I feel in the right place. I'm going to organize with the Democrats, but I'm going to put the interests of the people who sent me, and the country, ahead of party."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company